As Jerry Brown and the legislature approach a final budget deal, there is some tempered good news for adults needing help paying for dental care. At this writing, the budget calls for $17 million for 2013-14, increasing to $77 million the following year to partially restore dental care for three million low income Californians. While this is far below the $131 million called for by Senate Democrats, it will allow some relief for those who can least afford a dentist. And the need is great.
In May, I travelled with 200 Santa Cruz residents to a free dental care event put on by the California Dental Association in San Jose. Dientes and other local clinics spent days pre-screening these patients and provided buses to get them to the event. At 7 a.m. there was a line of 2,200 people snaking around the block. Some had camped overnight. While it was moving to see 1,700 volunteers providing free dental care, there was also something alarmingly wrong with the picture. The line included hundreds of children, elderly and disabled, some without teeth, some in pain, waiting in the shade of Silicon Valley skyscrapers housing some of the wealthiest businesses on earth.
At Dientes Community Dental Care where I am the executive director, we have persevered through the recession with the help of our local community. Our cities, county and many generous donors understand that the oral health safety net is a necessity, not a luxury. Despite serious challenges, Dientes continues to care for those who have no insurance, or can only pay a fraction.
I remember one patient, Anna, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her 80s and soon after began complaining of dental pain. Anna had no dental insurance, but her son Scott, a Dientes patient, knew that our dentists have experience with patients of all ages and health conditions. The dental staff provided the care Anna needed and gave her several comfortable years before she passed.
Four years ago, Medi-Cal stopped covering most seniors’ dental care, and only covered extractions and pain relief. Dentures were not covered. Hopefully the restored benefits will cover dentures and prevention. The Pew Center on the States estimated that in 2009, there were more than 830,000 emergency room visits nationwide related to preventable dental care, costing the states millions of dollars. Fully funding adult dental care for the poor makes financial and medical sense.
At Dientes we know that oral health is part of overall health. People who have serious dental problems don’t eat well, or feel well. Healthy smiles should not be reserved for those lucky enough to afford private care. In the case of seniors, these are our grandparents and aging parents, elderly aunts and older uncles, who worked hard and paid into the system until time and fate caught up with them. It is heartening to see the budget moving in a compassionate direction, but it won’t fill the gap left in 2009. If the Legislative Analyst’s Office is correct, and California ends up with a larger surplus next year, we urge Governor Brown to revisit this decision and fully restore Denti-Cal to its pre-recession funding levels.
Laura Marcus is executive director for Dientes Community Dental Care which provides dental services to low-income people of all ages. For information visit www.dientes.org.
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